“In the Place of God” (Genesis 50:15-21)

15th Sunday After Pentecost (September 13, 2020)

 

“What a world!  What a world!” cried out the exasperated wicked witch of the West as she melted away in the very familiar scene from the Wizard of Oz.  Of course, her lament concerning the sad state of affairs in the world had only to do with her own demise with no thought that it was due primarily to her wickedness that the Land of Oz was in such travail.

 

Many today seem to be echoing the wicked witch’s lament about the state of affairs in our world.  From television pundits to that member sitting in the pew frustrated with all the politics of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the radicals rioting and looting across our country, they all seem to hollering, “What a world we live in!  Can it get any worse?”

 

Now, I don’t mean to downplay these legitimate feelings and fears, but what’s new?  Yes, the world is full of evil.  But since the Fall, it always has been.  The apostle Paul wrote two millennia ago, “(make) the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16).  His fellow apostle John wrote a few decades later, “… the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I John 5:19).   

 

Albert Einstein had an interesting take on our exasperation with the evil in the world.  He is quoted as saying, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it (BrainyQuote.com). 

 

Indeed, you and I cannot hide from evil nor rid the world of it.  In fact, as a descendant of Adam, evil resides in each of us.   The real issue is what do we do about it?  How do we respond to evil?  Do we respond in kind… evil for evil as if evil received justifies evil in return?  “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”

 

It seems everyone is big on demanding justice when they or others with whom they feel an affinity are wronged, abused or are otherwise unfairly treated.  We are still hearing loud cries demanding justice for George Floyd, the black man, who is claimed to have been murdered by police in Minneapolis last May.  Of course, the protestors and rioters have other similar incidents of claimed police injustice toward black people to point to now from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and North Carolina to further make their case. Even if it can be proven that these incidents are the result of the evils of systematic racism among the police, they are being used by the more radical individuals and groups like Black Lives Matter to justify their ongoing rioting, assaulting and even murdering police officers, looting and burning down businesses and doing whatever they can to disrupt civil society. They claim their anarchy and demands for reparations from even ordinary, totally uninvolved citizens, are justified because the police, and of course, President Donald Trump, have so wickedly abused black people. 

 

If there is one thing that Holy Scripture clearly teaches, it is that justice ultimately rests with God.  We hear the apostle Paul state quite clearly in our Epistle Reading this morning, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?... For we all will stand before the judgment seat of God.”    It is not the place of the judged to judge.  As the Creator of all things, God alone has the authority to judge. God alone is also truly just and right in all His ways.  He alone, then, is worthy to judge. 

 

A the same time, God also is the One who has established how governments, as well as individuals, are to respond to evil. Elsewhere in his letter to the Roman Christians, the Lord’s apostle writes,   “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:3,4) 

 

It is, therefore, not a question if the duly established government is to respond with force against evil.  It is a matter of when and how.  For government bears God’s sword of wrath to punish evil.  In earthly matters God has given government to share in His place to judge.

 

On the other hand, the same apostle, quoting the prophet Moses in Deuteronomy writes concerning our demands for personal justice, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.   Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”  (Ro. 12:17-21).

 

As our Old Testament lesson from Genesis reveals, it is at this very juncture of political and personal response to evil that we find Joseph of old.  He had been wickedly treated by his older brothers.  For no fault of his own, they had thrown him into a pit, falsified his death to his father Jacob, and sold him to some slave traders at whose hands Joseph eventually ended up in an Egyptian prison.  But through a series providential actions, God graciously brought Joseph out of the depths of the evil received and placed him up onto the very throne of power in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.     

 

The question of the text is how would Joseph exercise his power to meet out justice against the evil that was perpetrated against him?  Would he respond with sword of the God-given power of the governing ruler or as a person who had also been visited by the goodness, mercy and grace of God?  What place would he assume?

 

Joseph’s brothers felt quite certain how Joseph would respond.  When their father Jacob died, they were seized with fear that all that the wickedness they had done to Joseph would be avenged upon them.  While Jacob was alive, they must have felt a certain sense of safety, that for the sake of their father, Joseph would not dare to lift a finger against them.  But with Jacob’s death, they feared their safety net had vanished!

 

Fearing the worst, they sent a most pointed and personal message to Joseph, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”

 

Whether Jacob actually gave such instruction or not is immaterial.  Such a request would certainly not be out of character for Jacob for he loved all his sons and was so happy in having Joseph back that he certainly would not have wanted his other sons taken away by execution for their evil.   What Joseph was to see, and what is quite clear to us, is that the brothers were genuinely afraid of Joseph’s power and were also sincerely contrite over their sin against him.  They were willing to call it what it is:  “evil.”  They likewise felt its burden pleading for Joseph to, literally, lift it up off of them;” that is, forgive them.

 

This is, I’m afraid, what is so often missing from our confessions today.  Oh, when our sin is discovered, we readily admit we did wrong, even if it is just to avoid punishment.  And, yes, we are Johnny on the spot to point out what others do is evil.  But how often do we acknowledge our sin as evil

 

Disobedience of any sort against God’s commandments, as well as any failures to carry out God’s will for our lives, are not simply mistakes or short comings.   They are willful defiance of God. 

 

Every sin says to God, “I reject you in favor of another god.  In fact, I put myself on your throne.  I know better than you what is best and right for me!”  How, then, can our sin be considered anything but evil?   Jesus has declared that all that comes out of our fleshly hearts is evil (Matt. 7:21-23).  Prior to the flood, the LORD God judged all people’s hearts as “evil continually” (Gen. 8:21).

 

If we cannot call our sin evil, I would maintain that we cannot truly ever repent of it nor truly appreciate the grace of God that alone conquers evil.  If we see our sin as something less than evil, we are still trying to play God ourselves and define our sin by our own standards not His.  We are usurping God’s place!

 

Speaking of knowing what is God’s place, Joseph found it necessary to take his brothers to school.   They might have rightly understood their deeds as evil, but they did not have a clue when it came to understanding God’s place of justice or God’s grace or how that grace controlled His justice, as well as controlled their brother Joseph.   

 

Moses states that Joseph “wept when they spoke to him.”  What sort of tears were these?  Were they tears of relief that finally his brothers were fully remorseful over what they had done to him?  I don’t think so.   For years already Joseph had been enjoying a restored relationship with his brothers. He had brought them and their families to Egypt and provided for all of their needs.  He had years before embraced them, comforting them with these words:  “And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for… God sent me before you… to keep you alive by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:5,7). 

 

I’m convinced that Joseph wept because it was now clear that his brothers still, all these years later, had not fully comprehended his forgiveness of them.   As a result, they were still living in fear of ultimately receiving the justice they deserved. 

 

In fact, so great yet was their fear and lack of understanding about Joseph that in their plea for him to forgive them, they tried to placate him to be merciful to them for their father’s sake.  They said:  “Forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”

 

How sad it is, indeed, when people do not know and enjoy forgiveness, whether it be God’s forgiveness or your or my forgiveness. Sin and wickedness do not destroy relationships between people.  If they did, we would not have any relationships with anyone.  Every relationship; that of husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, neighbors across the fence, fellow members of the congregation… are each wrought with all sorts of sin and evil.  But what makes the relationship bond strong, lasting, enjoyable and secure is not the punishment of the guilty but the forgiving of the guilty.  And only where such forgiveness is truly extended and believed is there peace and no fear.

 

Joseph said to his panic stricken brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” 

 

Joseph’s brothers had no cause to fear him. Joseph was not about to encroach upon God’s place to execute vengeance.  “’Vengeance is mine’ says the LORD” (Deut. 32:35).  Joseph recognized that even though God had given him the power of the sword to punish evil in Egypt, that power was not for him, or any other ruler, to use for his own personal vengeance.  God reserves to Himself to punish the wrongdoer. Besides, when God executes His punishment you can expect that it will be carried out in much greater severity than anything you and I can devise.

 

You and I do not have the right to treat badly, speak harshly toward, give the silent treatment,  or otherwise punish those who sin against us.   I know we insist that we are justified in the face of the evil they have done to us.   Vengeance, however, belongs to God alone!  When you and I act as judge, jury and executioner toward those who have hurt us, we are wickedly usurping the place of God.  He has not given us that place.  He reserves it only for himself.  Instead, God says to us, “Love your enemies… do good to those who persecute you…overcome evil with good.”

 

Now, of course, this does not mean that you and I are to blindly put ourselves in evil’s way or in other ways just sit idly by and become someone’s punching bag.  In the Gospels we see that Jesus Himself on several occasions escaped from the hands of those who sought to kill Him.  After all, He wanted to be the one to chose the time and place to give His life as a ransom for sinners and not let evil decide.  When God teaches to turn the other cheek, He is simply telling us not to take revenge.  We don’t need to.  That’s His place.

 

What is so wonderfully ironic, however, is that in this whole story of Joseph and His brothers as adamantly as Joseph refused to take God’s place of revenge, so willingly he embraced God’s place to forgive.  The further assurance of his forgiveness came with these words to his brothers:  “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.”  Then, Moses said, “Joseph comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”  In word and deed Joseph made clear His forgiveness.

 

How could this man, who, on account of his brothers envy, hatred, and malice, had suffered so much forgive so completely… so divinely?  Joseph’s God was so good to Him.  He had in His grace lifted Joseph up out of the Egyptian prison of a condemned man to the glory of the King’s throne itself.  Joseph had so freely been given how could he not likewise freely give? How could He not do the divine thing and forgive?

 

Jacob and Joseph’s God is your God.  Yes, in His righteousness He reserves the  place to execute vengeance upon evil.  But His true righteousness is most clearly revealed in His grace to forgive for His Son’s sake.  The holy apostle writes:  “(we) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness…” (Romans 3:24-25).   In His love for you, God gave up His right to punish you for your evil and instead gave up His Son into punishment in your place by allowing Him to suffer all things, even death, at the hand of evil men.  In Jesus Christ God has set you free from all fear of punishment and retribution.  His forgiveness has been lavished upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism, spoken kindly to you regularly through His servant in the word of absolution, and placed into your mouth through the holy bread and wine that is His’ body and blood given and shed for you. 

 

You have heard the saying, “To err is human and divine to forgive.”  Your gracious and forgiving God rejoices to share this divine place with you.  In fact, He is the King of Jesus’ parable who forgives the enormous debt of His servant; that is, you.  He expects you, then, to treat your fellow debtors in kind.  He teaches you through His Son to pray:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  He says to you, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:31-32).

 

What a great place God has in Christ given you to occupy.  He has lifted you up from the prison of fear of His wrath to live in the security of His grace where He also gives you to occupy His gloriously righteous place of forgiving. What a blessing He has graced you to be in this world gone mad in evil.  Instead of an agent of retribution and vengeance, He has given you to be a part of His force of forgiveness that ultimately will conquer all evil.  Amen.